Author Archives: clairegebben

Civil War POWs

In the current July/August “Echoes,” published by the Ohio Historical Society, I was delighted to find a piece about the Union Army POW camp Johnson’s Island (located in Sandusky Bay just to the south of Lake Erie).

I don’t remember how I happened on the existence of the Johnson’s Island camp in my research for The Last of the Blacksmiths, but I remember thinking how spotty the information seemed. Now, the “Echoes” magazine notes, there’s a new exhibit called “Privy to History” about the Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison at the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio, an exhibit that will run through January of 2015. The exhibit is funded by the Sidney Frohman Foundation and the Friends & Descendants of Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison. For details, go here.

A terrific on-line resource is the Johnson’s Island Preservation Society. Hover over the drop-down tab for History & POWs, for the submenu “Pleasure Resort Era.” Excuse me, Pleasure Resort Era? Yup.

The first Johnson’s Island Pleasure Resort Company leased about twenty acres of land in 1894. The resort was in business from July of 1894 to September of 1897, when operations were discontinued. In 1904, a new group purchased the stock and lease rights of the resort and retained its name. The resort was then operated for four years until it, too, was sold to a different owner, the Cedar Point Pleasure Resort Company.

johnsons island postcard

Cedar Point Pleasure Resort Company?!?! When I saw this, I was astounded and horrified. I’d gone to Cedar Point Amusement Park many times as a kid. Had they really built it on top of a POW Camp?! The answer, thank goodness, is a resounding NO. Cedar Point is across the bay. The “Pleasure Resort Era” on Johnson’s Island was short-lived, closing down once and for all in 1908. The full write-up is found here.

Another on-line resource for Johnson’s Island is found at Ohio History Central.

Homestead Digitization Project

Breaking news for genealogists and family history researchers.

Files detailing Nebraska’s homesteading history have been digitized and are now available to the public. The milestone’s part of a larger effort by the Homestead Digitization Project to put all homesteading documents from around the U.S. online. For more on the subject, Robert Siegel speaks with historian Blake Bell from the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, Neb.

Link to interview on NPR

Buffalo robes

I first included buffalo robes in the novel The Last of the Blacksmiths because it was something my grandmother used to mention when she described sleigh rides. I didn’t really know what they were like — after all, buffalo robes are not an everyday object now like they once were in the 1800′s. Then again, there’s always Wikipedia.

From the 1840s to the 1870s the great demand for buffalo robes in the commercial centres of Montreal, New York, St. Paul and St. Louis was a major factor that led to the near extinction of the species. The robes were used as blankets and padding in carriages and sleighs and were made into Buffalo coats.”

Here are two examples found in the book American Indian Art: Form and Tradition (E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc., 1972).

This colorful robe, made in the late 1800s, is attributed to the Ojibwa tribe.

Ojibwa Buffalo Robe circa late 1800s

This horseback “battle scene” buffalo robe is dated 1797 and was collected by Lewis and Clark in 1805 in present day North Dakota. Apparently, it’s the oldest known robe still in existence.

Battle scene between rival tribes circa lat 1700s

Even on the bitterest of winter nights, my grandmother described buffalo robes as keeping her cozy and warm in the brisk open air sleigh.

Enough time has passed that the buffalo is no longer on the endangered species list, and buffalo robes and hides are making a comeback. If you have $800-$1200+ to spend, that is.

Guessing right

“You might want to look through Dad’s stuff, the boxes in the spare room,” my brother Craig said to me over the phone. I was visiting his house in Cincinnati in early May. He had left for work earlier that morning. “I’m not sure what’s in there.”

The rest of the afternoon found me sitting on the floor of my brother’s living room, pictures and documents spread around me, as I took photo after photo of family genealogy documents, histories, and old photographs.

The material I’d pulled out of storage had been sorted into 9 x 12 manila envelopes. The outsides were labelled with names — PATTERSON — HOPPENSACK — MCINTOSH — GRESSLE — but I soon discovered the contents did not match the labels. In my dad’s dotage (he passed away in 2009), I remembered how he used to mix everything up. I had a clear vision of him sitting in his assisted living room, through a drugged haze of Parkinson’s, anti-depressants, and other meds, attempting to compose his “autobiography.” These materials had no doubt been spilled across his coffee table to jog his memory, then stuffed back in confused disarray.

It amazed me that I had none of this stuff when I was writing my novel The Last of the Blacksmiths. I had letters, tin-types and other photos, a family tree, plenty of other paraphernalia, but this material I had not seen.

One document in particular took my breath away: an 1858 confirmation certificate for “Elisabeth Crolli,” Michael Harm’s future wife.

elizabeth crolly confirmation zum schifflein christi


I had guessed Elizabeth Crolly was religious. Here was impressive evidence — from a church I’d guessed her family had attended — Zum Schifflein Christi (The Little Boat of Christ) German Church in Cleveland, Ohio. Somehow, through DNA? or instinct?, I’d also guessed my great-great grandmother was very devoted to her faith. Now, I beheld the evidence of her confirmation, carefully pasted to a stiff backing and preserved, a message to descendants five generations later regarding what this German American held dear.


Cheers to these Cleveland West Siders, Herb, Harriet, Carol, Dorothy, and David, relatives and descendants of Henry Hoppensack (who appears near the end of my novel The Last of the Blacksmiths). After my talk at Fairview Park Library on April 24, we had a really great time getting re-acquainted at Stamper’s Tavern, all while sampling delicious Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold .
Herb, Harriet, Carol, Dorothy, David, Claire

Rauch & Lang electric cars

At my launch event for The Last of the Blacksmiths, during the question and answer period my friend Larry raised his hand.

“Was Rauch a real person in history?” he asked.

Yes! Charles Rauch was a real person, a contemporary of Michael Harm in Cleveland in the 19th century who built fine carriages, ice wagons and buggies. Of course, my book being historical fiction, I surmised his personality, likes and dislikes, but the real historic Charles Rauch, son of Jacob, did gravitate toward factory-style manufacture of carriage-making. The Rauch & Lang factory took up several blocks on Pearl Road on Cleveland’s west side. At the start of the 20th century, he stayed on the cutting edge of vehicle manufacture with the production of a state-of-the-art electric automobile. Like the fine carriages, the Rauch & Lang electric cars were popular with Cleveland’s wealthier, Millionaire’s Row set.

Rauch & Lang electric carAt a recent visit to the Western Reserve Historical Society’s Crawford Auto Aviation Collection, I was delighted to find this example, circa 1906, of a Rauch & Lang electric car.

“Like” Cleveland

Terminal Tower from steps of Cleveland Public LibraryWhat a welcoming place. My brief week in Cleveland has flown by. I’ve met descendants of other Cleveland blacksmiths and craftsmen, historical fiction fans, researchers on the quest for German ancestors, history buffs, and dear family friends, including a few descendants of a character in the novel (Henry Hoppensack).

“Did Henry mean to cheat Rapparlie on that wagon, or was he just hard of hearing?” one of them asked. (After my talk at the Fairview Park library, we of the Hoppensack clan were on our way over to tip a quaff at Stamper’s Tavern.)

“Do you think Henry could have had hearing difficulties?” I asked.

“Frank didn’t hear well.”

I nodded sagely, but of course this proves nothing.

Clevelanders have treated me with generous — one might even say Palatine — hospitality. The following Cleveland bookstores are carrying my novel The Last of the Blacksmiths.
Mac’s Backs
Loganberry Books
Visible Voice Books
and the museum shop of the Western Reserve Historical Society on East Blvd.
Fireside Bookshop in Chagrin Falls

If you don’t live in Cleveland, the book can be ordered from a bookstore near you! And thanks for supporting your local bookstores.

Living in the past

me in 1890s garbThis photograph came to me via my father. About a dozen years ago, as he was sorting through his things in Cleveland, he’d mail off a new phase of my childhood to me in each of his letters.

Recently, this picture of me around eleven years old dressed for Halloween in a Victorian era dress and coat began to nag at my memory, so much so that I sat on a cold tile floor for some time flipping through old photo albums to find it.

Why? Because as I’m out and about on the book talk circuit, people often remark to me how amazed they are by the hours of research I must have put into my book. Since I don’t feel as if I’ve done more research than anyone else who writes historical fiction, their comments have me wondering. And this picture glimmered into my memory.

The outfit I’m wearing belonged to my grandmother’s family. Her mother? Aunt? Great aunt? I’m just not sure. My grandmother was born in 1891, in the horse-and-buggy era. She never learned to drive a car, and now that I think about it, in spite of her modern surroundings — a neat little contemporary home in the suburbs — she never stopped living a late nineteenth century kind of life.

Often when I visited her (her house was on the same property as our family’s) she’d recreate those old times for me, sitting me down on the couch to leaf through old photo albums as she told me stories, or pulling out her box of hand-tatted lace, or letting me run my hands through her shoebox of old buttons. She was an excellent seamstress and taught me how to sew, how to save basting thread by wrapping it around a card, how to darn socks. I still have her darning eggs and needles and crochet hooks made of bone in my sewing basket. She had her own, quiet world, and invited me in whenever I had the patience to linger.

It’s a known fact that people were smaller back then. So at age eleven, when I needed a Halloween costume, I fit perfectly into these clothes, which my grandmother had saved in her cedar chest. I still remember the feel of that velvet winter coat with the elaborate cord clasps, the black dress underneath made of silk, the slip made of taffeta.

Of course wearing something so special did not change my eleven-year-old behavior. I dashed with my friends from house to house trick-or-treating, leaping over ditches and rustling through wet piles of leaves. The hem of the dress was soon shredded. The frail threads of the coat seams couldn’t hold under my childhood exuberance and pulled apart at the shoulders.

I marvel now at the uniqueness of my upbringing. Actually, I don’t believe it’s the research that’s so remarkable, but instead how, on my visits with my grandmother, she and I really were living in the past.

Spring in my step

Thanks to Susan Roberts of the San Francisco Book Review for another great review. Five stars! I’m feeling so blessed.



The Writing Process Blog Tour continues

Many thanks to Stephanie Barbé Hammer @ MAGICALLY REAL for inviting me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour! Stephanie has published three academic books, and writes and publishes magical realist short stories, expressionist short stories, and a very little bit of non-fiction. Her collection of prose poems Sex With Buildings was released by Dancing Girl Press. She is currently seeking publication for her novel The Puppet Turners of Narrow Interior and is writing a sequel. In her writing, Stephanie explores the power, beauty, and fascination that surrealism, expressionism, magical realism and the unreal exert over us and our attempts to (re)think our world. Stephanie’s poetry collection How Formal? is forthcoming in May with Spout Hill Press.

You can read Stephanie’s responses to the Writing Process questions here.

Below, you’ll find my responses to the Writing Process Blog Tour:

1. What am I working on?

My novel The Last of the Blacksmiths (Coffeetown Press) was released just a month ago, so lately, my writing has been mostly supplemental articles: about food and wine in the Pfalz, about my adventures learning to blacksmith, giving interviews, stuff related to the novel. With my German cousin, I’m also putting together some three dozen letters written by German immigrant blacksmiths and wagon-makers, a book mainly of historical and genealogical interest.

Happily, I’m at last easing into in the earliest phase of another historical fiction novel, the story of a Scottish immigrant to America in the 1800s. I’ve written an opening scene, and am starting the research to immerse myself in that mindset and world.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I have to admit, I’m a closet teacher. In my college days, my roommates nicknamed me “know it all” because I was always trying to tell them stuff I was learning about. I think my writing reflects that, my desire to share what I’m finding out, things that I think are intriguing and help me see my life and the world in clearer perspective. Some historical fiction shies away from being a “history lesson,” and I get that. But I guess I’m inclined to worry more about writing a story so it transcends the page, drawing on whatever it takes to build that world in the imagination.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I write because I can’t help it. Experience keeps forming itself to me in sentences I feel a need to write down. So I write across genres. The historical fiction novel is a first for me, but I loved doing it. I wrote it because I received a gift, authentic 19th century letters that told a story I longed to share. I’ve also written a young adult novel about a backpacking expedition (still in the drawer, unpublished) and short stories and personal essays. I’m a columnist these days for my local newspaper, and in addition to this author blog, I blog monthly about hair. I suppose I write about whatever entertains me, with the hope it will entertain others as well.

4. How does my writing process work?

When I’m working on a big project like a novel, I write just about every day, usually early in the morning. I tend to save new writing for the mornings and revise in the afternoons. Sometimes I can’t sleep, and then I get up in the middle of the night and jot down sentences as they come. The hardest thing for me is the blank page. Lots of people hate revision, but I love it. I love going deeper, bringing out themes and metaphors and ideas I didn’t see at first. That’s my favorite part.


Next week the Writing Process Blog Tour continues to branch out with two amazing story-tellers:

Stephanie Lile. Stephanie is a writer, teacher, exhibit developer, researcher, art lover and museum educator. She has written for magazines such as Columbia, Calliope, Bacopa, Soundings Review, The Morgan Horse, and ColumbiaKids. Her nonfiction book History Lab To Go! is an award-winning museum publication. Stephanie has launched a small studio that is the percolator for her publishing projects, as well as home to the KBL Family Collection of amazing WWII imagery. Currently, she is working on publication of her novel The Tail Gunner, about a ghost soldier of WWII who cannot rest until he’s completed his final mission, and his granddaughter Sylvie is just the one to help make that possible.

Steve W. White. Steve teaches math and science during the day and writes at night, mainly SF and fantasy. He’s indie-published three novels: Outrageous Fortunes: A Novel of Alternate Histories, New World: A Frontier Fantasy Novel and Read No Evil, and a collection of short stories: Turing’s Revenge and Other Stories. Lately, he’s earned a Fiction MFA from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts on Whidbey Island, Washington. You’ll find his blog about writing at Novel Dog.